The Universale Notebook: Crabbing about crabmeat

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Perhaps you’ve noticed that fresh, local crabmeat can be hard to find these days. I’ve been buying eight-ounce plastic containers of rock crab from Moody’s Seafood in Brunswick and Day’s Crabmeat & Lobster in Yarmouth, but on a couple of occasions recently they have both been fresh out.

So what’s the deal?

To my taste, delicate, delicious Maine crab comes in a close second to succulent Maine lobster. Hannaford in Brunswick rarely has fresh local crabmeat, so it was a boon to our seafood appetites when Scott Moody opened his seafood market on the Bath Road late last year. Imagine my disappointment then when I stopped in for crabmeat a few weeks back and found they had none.

The young lady at the counter blamed the heat wave, telling me crabmeat had been hard to come by because the warming ocean waters had driven the crabs offshore. I asked Scott Moody about this last week and he told me the real problem was a shortage of labor. He just can’t find people to do the tedious job of picking crabmeat.

“And now it’s really clam season,” Scott told me, “so it’s more profitable to shuck clams than to pick crabmeat.”

Day’s Crabmeat (an iconic roadside attraction whose sign in the 1940s had a definite space between “crab” and “meat”) no longer picks its own crabmeat, but I can remember seeing Asian women hard at work in the picking room out back when I first moved to Yarmouth in 1982. I am told that Vietnamese, Cambodian and African immigrants have been excellent crabmeat pickers over the years, people willing to spend 12 hours day laboriously separating flesh from shell without complaint.

The crab-picking labor shortage in Maine is probably not an immigration issue, but the labor shortage in Maryland is. The Maryland blue crab industry relies heavily on Mexican laborers imported under the H2B temporary seasonal worker visa program and, due to President Trump’s anti-immigrant policies, the ranks of Maryland’s crab pickers have been thinned this year by as much as 40 percent.

Last week when I talked to Scott Moody about the local labor shortages, he did have product to sell, albeit not local Maine crabmeat. What Moody’s was selling was crabmeat from the Atlantic Red Crab Co. in New Bedford, Massachusetts. It was just fine in Carolyn’s light, crispy crab cakes, but as Scott said, “It still ain’t ours.”

Most crabmeat in Maine is Jonah crab, whether it’s labeled peekytoe or rock crab. Atlantic Red Crab Co. crabmeat comes from red crabs caught way offshore. The eight ounces of crabmeat I bought at Moody’s cost just $12. A few days later I purchased crabmeat from Beal’s Lobster Pier in Southwest Harbor at Hannaford in Yarmouth for $12.99. But I have paid as much as $16 at Day’s for crabmeat hand-picked in Jonesport and, if I were desperate, I suppose I could splurge and buy an eight-ounce container of Peekytoe Lump Crab at Browne Trading Co. in Portland for $24.

Most crab in Maine is by-catch from the lobster fishery. Few if any Mainers fish solely for crabs. Jon Williams, the Maine man who became the Red Crab King of New England, is the exception. His Atlantic Red Crab Co. in New Bedford produces something like 4 million pounds of red crab and 6 million pounds of Jonah crab a year. His fleet of five fishing boats set out to sea for a week or more at a time in search of red crab.

“If I had the labor force,” Williams told me last week, “I could keep 150 people busy picking crabs, but I can’t find the labor.”

To process its 10 million pounds of crab a year, Atlantic Red Crab relies on a machine extraction process that uses a combination of hand labor (to remove the carapace before cooking, break up the cooked crab, and pick the large lumps of leg meat) and water blasting to separate body meat from shell. I imagine the good folks of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals might take exception to the process, as they do to processing and steaming lobsters, but it’s not an issue for me.

As I understand it, lobsters and crabs have nervous systems similar to insects. Lobster fishermen even call lobsters “bugs.” So I doubt they feel much pain. Then, too, I assuage my gluttonous guilt with the certain knowledge that, should my earthly remains someday end up in Davy Jones’ locker, the crabs and lobsters down there will gladly return the favor.

Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Brunswick. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.